01 March 2021






I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

To Professor Derek Wilding, President of the Australian Chapter of the International Institute of Communications, thank you for having me back to address the IIC’s global platform, this time to “Unpack the Media Reform Green Paper”.

To Telstra, particularly Ivan Cook for his efforts in facilitating this event with the IIC: Thank you for hosting us and for your support for public policy dialogue in the communications portfolio.

I acknowledge the expert industry panels to follow this address and very much look forward to hearing their         views and learning from their insights – preliminary as they may be at this stage of the Green Paper process.

For we are young and free

Recently, Australia’s National Anthem was changed.

Effective 1 January 2021, the second line of Advance Australia Fair changed from “For we are young and free” to “For we are one and free”.

Nothing to do with the various services under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 – free or otherwise. 

This change had everything to do with our nationhood, to better reflect our country’s ancient story and First Nations peoples, and to celebrate the unity of our multicultural society. 

In the wake of the Christchurch terrorist atrocity; at a time when ASIO is warning of the rise of Right Wing Extremism in our country; in an era where online misinformation and disinformation undermines trust, order, health and safety; and in the face of widespread economic instability, we must ensure that the instruments of nation-building, democracy and culture remain strong now and into the future.  

Of course, the objectives of broadcast media policy and law have long been concerned with “developing and reflecting a sense of Australian identity, character and cultural diversity”.  

For decades, successive Australian Governments, taxpayers and industry sectors have made significant investments in the stable, ubiquitous and free terrestrial broadcasting platform we take for granted today.

They have also made significant investments in much of the content transmitted over the airwaves of our vast land mass.

And television has long attracted regulation in recognition of the influence it exerts in shaping community views in Australia. 

So while the Black Summer bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic have made us far more conscious of State and Territory borders than we ever could have imagined, these crises have also underscored the importance of broadcasting in bringing the nation together.

Meanwhile, over the top services also provide Australians with entertainment, education and information. 

A host of streaming, SVOD, BVOD, AVOD services, apps, websites and devices also play a role. 

However, while Australians may be “one and free”, not all Australians enjoy uniform service levels, and not all services are either free or equitably available.

In the 21st century, inequality has a digital dimension.

And in the land of the fair go, fairness is not self-executing.

While the rollout of the National Broadband Network has been declared ‘complete’ by this Government, reliable broadband remains a postcode lottery, and up to a quarter of a million NBN households still can’t even access the minimum broadband speeds required under both law and the NBN statement of expectations.

We’ve also seen notable issues impact the reliability of the NBN, with inadequate surge protection in the network design resulting in customers having their modems burnt out during lightning storms. 

We have also seen the move towards Fibre to the Node reduce the resilience of the NBN to power outages, which has been particularly felt in the regions.

In contrast, when Australians turn on their free-to-air TV – it just works.

Uninterrupted and reliable service is what they have come to expect as the norm.

So I think it is certainly fair to say that in our suburbs, and in our regions, the lived experience of Australians is that terrestrial broadcasting remains the most reliable platform through which they can access both television and radio.

And while some of us can afford any number of subscription services, free services are still relied on by the vast majority of Australian citizens.

The pandemic has exposed the digital divide; the gap between the haves and have-nots when it comes to digital accessibility, affordability and ability – including up to 55,000 households with school children who had no internet connection at the outset of COVID.

So free-to-air television remains an important platform, even as it changes and itself faces challenging market conditions.

The industry has long been crying out for reform, for material change, and a serious conversation about its future. 

In the meantime, times have changed.

Many young people, including my kids, don’t really understand the word “television”; the concept of linear broadcasting is a bit strange to them.

They’ll ask if they can turn on “ABC Kids”, or “Netflix” or “YouTube”, often with a particular program in mind, and seek to skip any ads. 

For them, “TV” is the thing in the lounge room on which to watch the abovementioned, not the linear content.

But none of this means that free, ubiquitous, linear TV isn’t integral. 

It means we need a smart conversation about how best to leverage the linear window as an anchor to place and community, complemented by the array of over the top services and connected devices.

No one understands this better than the television sector and they have been working to prepare for a dialogue on the role of linear television in Australia. 

These issues include complex engineering, economic and socio-political issues that require timely, sensitive and holistic consideration.

That brings me to the Media Reform Green Paper.

As I have noted elsewhere, the Government’s 2017 changes to media law demonstrate that piecemeal tinkering, backroom deals and short-termism don’t serve the nation very well. 

Contrary to the Government’s promises at the time, these changes have failed to usher in a “new era” for media diversity and journalism jobs, particularly in regional areas. 

So I welcome any attempt by the Government to look beyond narrow self-interest and short-termism.

I welcome dialogue about the future. 

So, with all due respect to the contributors to the paper, and in the spirit in which the consultation intends, I offer the following policy critique; naturally with some political overlay given my role and the special role of broadcasting in the national psyche. 

My critique of the Green Paper is threefold:

  1. It is ill-timed.
  2. It is ill-conceived.
  3. It is inadequate.

Taking each of these in turn:

The Green Paper is ill-timed

Firstly, the timing of the Green Paper is curious.

It was released in late November 2020:

  • well into this Government’s eighth year in office and halfway through the term of the 46th Parliament;
  • almost 18 months after the ACCC delivered the Final Report of the Digital Platforms Inquiry;
  • almost a year since the Government committed to “commencing a staged process to reform media regulation towards a platform-neutral regulatory framework” in response to the ACCC Inquiry;
  • over a month after the launch of the ‘Save Our Voices’ campaign by regional media; and
  • just one month before the Minister’s so-called ‘implementation roadmap’ had already run out of actions on “media regulation reform”.

In the midst of a pandemic, during recovery after the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, the Minister lobbed a new project into the fray entitled: “Media Reform Green Paper: Modernising television regulation in Australia”.

What could this be, we all thought.

Was it to work through the underpinning principles, concepts and objectives for a harmonised framework – a new Communications Act?

Was it to offer up options for structural media ownership reform in answer to regional media’s Save Our Voices campaign?  

Was it to address the “early warning signs of market failure” in regional television broadcasting, words that I was stunned to read in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio and Other Measures) Bill 2020 last year? 

Finally, was the Green Paper to address the outstanding recommendations in the ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry? The recommendations the Government initially rejected, or has failed to progress adequately?

The Government likes to use the ACCC’s report as the new line in the sand around the impetus for media reform, but the reality is the regulator warned the Government the framework was under strain, replete with ‘broken concepts’, a decade ago. 

But the answer to all these possibilities is no. 

A shame given that, in the past 18 months, the Department has put out tenders worth over $300,000 for independent research and assessment of:

The Green Paper leaves the balance of the ACCC’s recommendations on the table. 

Instead, the Green Paper cobbles together:

  • some leftover questions on SVOD regulation from the screen content review, which has been dragging on since the former Minister first announced it back in May 2017, 
  • with some early questions on a potential second digital dividend from the auction of the 600 MHz band, an issue commonly understood to be of medium term focus, plucked from the future for examination right now. 

These issues are bridged through potential changes to broadcast licensing and content regulation, and the creation of two trusts that, mirage-like, shimmer in the distance, in the form of funding for local news and Australian content.

It begs the question: what “real-worldism” has been brought to this exercise? 

Who did the Government consult with?

And who or what was the real impetus for this paper?

I say this with all sincerity, I don’t doubt they may be out there, but thus far I am yet to meet a stakeholder who was wanting or expecting the Minister to kick off a concerted discussion about second digital dividend at this point in time. 

The ongoing soul-searching on the question of SVOD regulation is really dragging on. 

It is coming up to two years since Labor committed to “Make it Australian”, putting the question of regulation beyond doubt but leaving the precise mechanism to be determined by an expert-led Taskforce.  

The notion of a 600 MHz auction as soon as 2025, however, has come out of the blue and taken many by surprise.

And it’s a different kind of surprise, depending on your current relationship to the band in question and the business cases you may be contemplating!

It has taken many aback because the ACMA’s Five Year Spectrum Outlook, or FYSO – a five year work plan for the regulator informed by industry consultation – has 600 MHz in the category of ‘Monitoring’, stating:
“Continue to monitor domestic and international developments in these bands to identify usage trends”.

Yet the Green Paper envisages a scenario where the planning, auction and restack work for the band is done and dusted in under the immediate next five years. 

Meanwhile the FYSO flags that WRC-23 is set to review the spectrum use and spectrum needs of existing services over the frequency band 470-960 MHz in Region 1 so clearly big questions remain to be resolved. 

Without a doubt, 600 MHz has been on the radar of the mobile sector. It is certainly a band that industry is interested in and periodically there have been general references to a potential second digital dividend. 

While the telcos have been focused on preparing for the upcoming 26 GHz auction of mmWave spectrum, among other things (including changes for 3.4 GHz spectrum licensees, the 850 MHz expansion band and 900 MHz band spectrum allocation), the Green Paper now has brought 600 MHz – rare, scare, low band spectrum – into focus and rocketed it up the list of considerations for mobile network operators.  

The future and implications of the 600 MHz band in the ecosystem are huge and planning for a change in use of a spectrum band is a complex task. 

Little wonder that the Government has extended the deadline for submissions on the Green Paper by a couple of months. 

I will be very interested to see detailed submissions when industry is in a position to share them, including on how realistic the indicative timetable is in view of international developments, pricing analysis and consumer impact. 

So, while domestic and international processes play out, I’m just going to call this how I see it.

And forgive my scepticism but the Green Paper did, at first glance, appear to be designed to distract and deflect, divert and delay.

Perhaps it was designed to make Liberal National Party members, including backbenchers, think the Minister has the Portfolio in hand, while giving them all something to say to the media stakeholders and screen sector producers who come knocking on their doors. 

The paper does put forward what it calls “A mutually beneficial solution”.

Namely, reform proposals that could reduce regulatory burden for television broadcasters, free up the spectrum for telcos and 5G, unlock funds to dole out for local news and Australian content production, all while returning funds to Government coffers.

Sounds pretty good.

So what’s the counter-factual?

Put another way, force the broadcasters into spectrum that limits their ability to compete, flog off a scarce and valuable public resource, reduce broadcast channel offerings, permit a reduction in the amount of Australian content available in regional, fund television’s competitors with funds from the spectrum auction, force the ABC and SBS channels to share a multiplex, break contracts and drop a channel, squeeze Community TV out for good, all while removing public interest safeguards for Australian content and returning funds to consolidated revenue. 

In all seriousness, in order to achieve the proposals in the Green Paper, a few fundamental question need to be answered. 

What do the proposals mean for:

  • the future competitiveness of broadcast television?;
  • the equality of service provision between the city and the bush; and
  • taxpayer access to taxpayer-funded broadcasting services and Australian content.

I’ll return to these issues and some of my concerns about the underlying assumptions in a moment. 

It is one thing for the Government to put out a Green Paper talking about trusts for local news and screen production in 2025.

But the Government’s actions in 2020 were to suspend and then water down, or effectively abolish, regulatory safeguards for children’s television production. 

And the Government’s allocation of the Public Interest Newsgathering Fund, announced as a COVID-19 response measure, left small and independent publishers with less than they were originally promised in 2017.

Take also the current Parliamentary inquiry into “Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions”. 

The Minister announced this inquiry in August 2020, a year after I gave a speech to this forum, the IIC, on the topic of “Australia’s Creative Economy”. 

I am pleased to see the Government finally pick up on some of the potential of the creative industries and note that one of the terms of reference is to enquire into the impact of COVID-19.

But I am sceptical of what the inquiry is designed to achieve, beyond getting creative industries stakeholders off the Minister’s back, since the Government removed ‘Arts’ from the title of the Department and denied many freelance and independent creative workers JobKeeper after their livelihoods were shut down almost overnight during lock down. 

Meanwhile, the inquiry doesn’t report until October 2021 – possibly around the time of the next election – a very leisurely timeframe given the scale of the COVID-19 crisis that may be designed to run dead as an exercise in distraction and deflection by this Minister.

The distorting impact of some the government’s decisions, design failures and lack of transparency are of real concern, and the gap between rhetoric and reality does not engender trust.

My point is, the second digital dividend is about more than just a series of regulatory and business transactions.

Linear broadcasting has intrinsic value.

What is at stake is the role and future of television in our society now and into the future, as well as the safeguarding of culture and national identity during this tumultuous time in our history.
It is ill-conceived

Turning now to the second of my critiques: the Green Paper is somewhat misconceived and founded on questionable assumptions in places. 

Cognisant this may be intended as a device to stimulate debate, I offer some observations.

The title says “Modernising television regulation” but the paper does seem more concerned with identifying a pathway towards realising the second digital dividend than a genuine discussion about the future of television, or modernising television regulation in a multi-platform environment.

Were it genuinely about the sustainable future of television, it would discuss the hybrid interplay and regulation of linear services with related OTT services and connected devices.

It would offer a view on the competitive future of television in Australia and grapple with the implications of confining television broadcasting to a new home in the spectrum that stifles 4K service provision, among other things.

It would not offer a vision for less channels, it would not assume competition to be a “problem”, per se, and it would not immediately assume certain efficiency benefits of MPEG4 or necessarily assume that television no longer needs so much spectrum, as the Green Paper does.

Pick up an ALDI catalogue these days, look at the Special Buys, and you’ll see that Australian consumers already expect 4K TV.

What does it mean for advertisers and audiences if our television industry can’t deliver 4K over linear?

Talk to a blind or vision-impaired Australian and see if they are satisfied with the level of audio description on free to air television, or that their human rights are being met, compared with what is available on Netflix.

Labor welcomes the fact the Minister adopted Labor’s policy of funding the ABC and SBS $2 million each to commence provision of audio description but there is a lot more to do.

Twenty-one years ago, the Final Report of the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Broadcasting noted the impact of internet services on competition in Australia media. 

Internet-based competition isn’t new. And the industry doesn’t shy away from it either, regarding competition as par for the course while focussing their concerns on regulatory asymmetry and levelling the playing field.

They want to compete, is the point.

A few years ago now, at an address to the SMPTE Conference 2017 – the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers – I flagged the advent of 4K and 8K TV and called for public dialogue on broadcast standards evolution.

I put a series of questions about the role of Government, asking:
“What should Government be doing to support the future evolution of digital terrestrial television to enable it to compete with over-the-top providers in the broadband-enabled environment?”

In recent times, the Australian television industry has been making progress on these issues, running trials, exploring options. I understand numerous work streams exist to test what may be possible.

Again, and on the other hand, were this a genuine discussion about the second digital dividend, it would grapple with analysis of timing, international developments, pricing, guard band interference and consumer disruption issues, and the like.

Another misconception threaded through the Green Paper is that people in regional Australia will or should accept less channels and/or less Australian content.

There is something opportunistic about exploiting any current weaknesses of regional broadcasters.

Dangling the promise of a tax-free licence and fewer regulatory obligations around Australian content to move them along and out of 600 MHz – potentially triggering the shift of the entire television sector – all while ignoring their broader calls for reform, is certainly one way of clearing the band.

But the idea of giving free-to-air television businesses a choice about their service and regulatory obligations, could mean some Australians miss out, quite unevenly, as a result. 

The Green Paper envisages a situation where there will be fewer linear television channels and less Australian content in the bush than in the cities, given the proposal that the new licence “would offer a pathway to deregulation” including “no obligation to meet an Australian content requirement on their multichannels”. 

These proposals have implications for the entire screen ecosystem, impacting as it does audiences, advertising revenues, affiliate deal costs and revenue and commissions for screen producers and jobs in the screen sector, among other things.

Pitched as the maintenance of service levels “at close to current levels”, on the face of it, the Green Paper leaves open the situation where the ABC and SBS may be directed to share a multiplex and reduce their channel offering.

  • Would the Minister care to tell us which channel that he thinks should go?
  • Should it be NITV? ABC Kids? Or ABC News?
  • Where does the Green Paper leave the concept of equalisation?
  • Has the Department done any modelling on what regional media should look like, outside the prism of media ownership and control?
  • And, to return to my earlier theme, where are the Nats?

Let’s not forget, this is a Minister who saw fit to let the ABC TV signal in East Goulburn and the SBS TV signal in Bermagui be lost to residents for months last year, during a pandemic, while he ran late working out who should pay to get them running again.  

This is the Minister who responded to the ACCC’s finding that “the public broadcasters are not currently resourced to fully compensate for the decline in local reporting” and that they should have “stable and adequate funding” by proceeding with funding cuts to the ABC. 

The same Minister who then left the ABC out of the draft News Media Bargaining Code, despite the fact the ABC said it would direct revenue under the Code to regional services.

Labor is proud to have led calls to include the public broadcasters in the News Media Bargaining Code, which passed Parliament last week.

We noted that there should be a return on taxpayer investment in news from the digital platforms, and that both the ABC and SBS have long been permitted to derive commercial revenue. 

And while the PING Trust and the Create Australian Screen Trust (CAST) should be debated constructively, I will say this:

This Government has zero credibility on grants administration, and it’s not just because of Sports Rorts, or because PING and CAST are still years away at best.

When the PING was announced in 2020 as a COVID-relief measure, it sounded like $50 million had been found. The reality is that $36 million of it was re-announced from a 2017 fund that was majority underspent.  

The PING criteria was problematic and the Minister’s involvement in both its design and allocation served to undermine press freedom.

And there is yet to be any clear advice or support to small and regional publishers about how to register with the ACMA, contact the digital platforms or access a copy of a standard offer from Google or Facebook.  

Meanwhile, other trust options should be explored, including to support improved regional connectivity as well as improved accessibility of content, with both improved active monitoring of captioning quality by the regulator and more funding for additional hours of audio described content.

It is inadequate

The third element of my critique is that the Green Paper is inadequate.

While it looks out to an earlier than anticipated second digital dividend, other more immediate and pressing issues don’t get a look in.

For a paper ostensibly about ‘modernising television regulation’ there is precious little television regulation under examination.

It has been deeply disappointing to see the sunsetting provisions of the Legislative Instruments Act overtake the Government as the driving imperative for the examination of key media policy issues.

In 2019, the imminent expiration of the Alston Determination saw the Minister kick the can down the road on the question of whether live streamed TV and radio services delivered over the internet should be regulated under the Broadcasting Services Act. 

In 2020, the expiration of the Parental Lock Standard saw the ACMA explore what other incentives or regulatory techniques could be used instead of, or in addition to, those currently contained within the Parental Lock Standard, enlivening important questions around domestic reception equipment, electronic program guides and domestic reception labelling schemes. 

This Government likes to talk a big game about regulating big-tech and digital giants.

But the reality is that connected, Smart TVs, as are television device manufacturers and software providers, are challenging our free to air broadcasters today with control of the television interface where prominence is for sale, app updates are outside the control of the broadcaster and advertising revenue share deals are increasingly onerous.  

It’s well and good that the Green Paper mentions a requirement on certain SVOD and AVOD businesses to make Australian content discoverable to Australian audiences, but it is light on detail and falls short of mandated prominence requirements across the board.

Now, in 2021, the anti-siphoning list is set to expire.

My passion for Australian TV content is not confined to drama and news.

It includes sport – and for anyone who enjoys watching Meg Lanning play cricket the lines between art and sport can at times be blurred. 

Sport on our TV screens is a hugely significant part of the Australian way of life for millions of our fellow citizens. 

But these cultural touchstones being broadcast for free across our vast continent are not guaranteed.

The anti-siphoning list holds an important place in the Australian broadcasting landscape because it should be a guardrail ensuring free to air broadcasters, and thus Australians, have access to significant sporting moments. 

Imagine Cathy Freeman’s Sydney Olympics 400 metre final behind a paywall. 

Or John Aloisi’s winning penalty against Uruguay in 2005, sending Australia to a World Cup, being confined to pay per view. 

Or, of course, if the Parramatta Eels’ inevitable 2021 Grand Final victory was only broadcast on Fox or Kayo. 

These are culturally significant events for the vast majority of Australians, and they should be accessible to all Australians.

And not only is it important for the Australian people, and nation-building, but also important for the development of the sports themselves. 

While there are legitimate debates to be had about the framework in 2021, the principles of accessibility and inclusiveness are important. 

The implications of its future in a fragmented media environment are real. 

But with the anti-siphoning list set to expire on 1 April this year – less than five weeks away – we have no guarantee from this Government about its future. 

The last time the Government updated the anti-siphoning list, Australians lost free access to a number of matches of Cricket, Netball, Rugby Union and Rugby League Test matches, Socceroos and Matildas World Cup qualifiers played outside Australia, the Australian Open and Masters golf and more.

And given this Government has put women’s and niche sports behind a paywall with the grant of $40 million to Fox Sports, Australians have every right to be concerned about the future of sport on free TV. 

Now, I acknowledge the role of subscription services like Foxtel and Kayo in the ecosystem, and commend them on their efforts during difficult circumstances. 

But I also have a desire to see contestability and accessibility where taxpayer funds are involved. 


The Green Paper puts forward some proposals for which I’m sure many in this room will constructively engage.

Labor is also up for a mature discussion about these issues, and will continue to engage constructively.

But the thought I want to leave you with is that media and communications policy has real world implications for real people.

On Friday afternoon at the end of a long sitting fortnight, I was privileged to officiate at the opening of a beautiful new cricket pavilion in Pearce Reserve in the suburb of Kings Langley in my electorate of Greenway.  It was the latest milestone in local sporting amenities in the precinct. All three levels of government contributed to its realisation.  Asked to say a few words, I mentioned in my remarks that I was giving this speech today and I wanted to recognise the importance of grass-roots sport and the accessibility of enjoyment.  I didn’t expect to have members of the cricket club lining up afterwards to tell me how real those comments resonated with them,

Being blocked by a pay wall is very real. 

Not seeing a diversity of sports or your sporting heroes on free TV is real; just as not being able to afford an array of streaming sports subscriptions has very real consequences.  

Not being able to see local sports teams on Community TV is real.

So I understand the importance of joined-up policy when it comes to driving outcomes across my local community as well as the nation through the Communications Portfolio.

It reinforces that communications policy permeates our own lives as well as the national conversation. 

As promising as the benefits of 5G are and the enthusiasm we have for its realisation, television occupies a special place.

We need joined up policy development and consultation to deliver on accessibility and inclusion, as well as diversity and competition, in media and communications – in the interests of not only those kids playing cricket at Pearce Reserve in Kings Langley, but for all our citizens and our great nation.